University of Wisconsin Press colophon



University of Wisconsin Madison crest that links to main university site

Association of University Presses member logo that links to main AUPresses site



Catalog Archive / Fall 2015

A Mysterious Life and Calling
From Slavery to Ministry in South Carolina
Edited with an introduction by Crystal J. Lucky
Foreword by Joycelyn K. Moody

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography
William L. Andrews, Series Editor

A Mysterious Life and Calling shifts and revises what we thought we knew about black (women’s) autobiography, antebellum autobiography, spiritual and conversion texts, slavery narratives, and South Carolina history.”
—Joycelyn Moody, from the foreword

Preacher, teacher, and postmistress, Charlotte Levy Riley was born into slavery but became a popular evangelist after emancipation. Although several nineteenth-century accounts by black preaching women in the northern states are known, this is the first discovery of such a memoir in the South.

Born in 1839 in Charleston, South Carolina, Riley was taught to read, write, and sew despite laws forbidding black literacy. Raised a Presbyterian, she writes of her conversion at age fourteen to the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, embracing its ecstatic worship and led by her own spiritual visions. Her memoir is revelatory on many counts, including life in urban Charleston before and after emancipation, her work as a preacher at multiracial revivals, the rise of African American civil servants in the Reconstruction era, and her education and development as a licensed female minister in a patriarchal church.

Crystal J. Lucky, who discovered Riley’s forgotten book in the library archives at Wilberforce University in Ohio, provides an introduction and notes on events, society, and religious practice in the antebellum era and during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and places A Mysterious Life and Calling in the context of other spiritual autobiographies and slave narratives.


Author. Photo credit, Name Crystal J. Lucky is an associate professor of English and the director of the Africana Studies Program at Villanova University. She is also an ordained elder and official in the Church of the Living God International.





“[Crystal] Lucky has truly uncovered a gem with this autobiography of Charlotte S. Riley, a former slave who became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church after emancipation. . . . An important, informative achievement.”
Publishers Weekly

“Riley’s autobiography is a genuine discovery in areas that are being widely read and taught: women’s spiritual autobiography, African American autobiography, and the history of the slave narrative in North America. This is an extraordinary contribution to American letters.”
—William L. Andrews, series editor

“This timely treasure reveals the heart and soul of a Southern black woman preacher during a time when such characteristics rarely existed in the same person. With subtle, yet striking commentary, Lucky guides this narrative from behind the scenes, only stepping in to create context or contrast that will deepen our modern understanding of this important autobiography.”
Reading Religion



Download Cover: color | b/w

Download Author Photo: color | b/w

Request Review Copy

Request Exam Copy



Of Related Interest

The Life and Adventures of Henry


The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb
An American Slave
Henry Bibb

Larger images

January 2016
LC: 2015010199 E
146 pp.   6 x 9
3 b/w illus.

Book icon
Paper $24.95 A
ISBN 9780299306748
Shopping cart

Review Cart